Comment: The nuanced politics of Wikipedia’s ‘blackout’

Wikipedia's high-profile blackout stunt offers an intriguing possibility for democratic activists waiting to take online protests into the offline world.

By Matthew Champion 

The reaction to online encyclopedia Wikipedia's decision to suspend its English-language articles for 24 hours in protest at anti-web piracy legislation in the US has overlooked the true significance of the protest.

While coverage has focused on Wikipedia's principled stand against internet censorship, the website's intriguing blend of offline and online politics has been missed. To understand how Wikipedia has attempted to transcend what has eluded democratic activists for decades it is necessary to explore the relationship between democracy and the web.

Over the last two decades waning enthusiasm for the western democratic project has been replaced by a new zeal for the internet. As post-1991 democracies in eastern Europe retreated into autarchy and the neoliberal veneer of democratic participation lost its shine, democratic futures have been increasingly embodied in the internet, no more so than in sites like Wikipedia – a poster-child for the participatory, objective and collective potential of wikis (from the Polynesian word for 'quick') and the internet.

The ubiquity of the internet (in 2007, 97% of all telecommunications information was exchanged online, compared to one per cent in 1993) and sites such as Wikipedia (with over ten million user-created articles in more than 30 languages) has however not led to any sizeable reconfiguration of political power; the pre-internet hegemony still being intact.

There are two main schools of thought on this: that the internet's inherently democratic potential is yet to be realised (cosmopolis theory or the cosmopolitan interpretation), or that its innate undemocratic nature is taking effect (citadel theory or the citadellian interpretation). A third, less frequently argued position on the internet and democracy removes technological essentialism from the previous two theories that assign innate attributes to the web. Proponents of this third way, here described as the causeway that separates and connects the cosmopolis and the citadel, believe that the internet is inherently something only in its decentralisation, vastness and complexity.

The challenge for digital activists is and always will be transferring online protests offline. For example, it is easy to inspire a Twitter user to use the hashtag #occupy or tint his profile image green, but getting the same user to camp out in St Paul's or to brave militia in Tehran is an entirely different matter. The term slacktivist was coined for such problematic situations.

In the online world there are two main approaches towards achieving different strands of internet democracy: mass action and digitally-correct action. Internet activism originated from the belief that any inbuilt determination in computer software was to be contested, manifesting itself in an unlikely marriage of libertarian and anarchic thought. Mass action activists attempt to replicate offline protests online via non-violent direct actions such as overloading website servers (denial-of-service or DoS) in a similar vein to an occupation of a building in the real world. Meanwhile, digitally-correct activists decry the limiting of virtual powers in favour of making flow of information and human rights sacrosanct. So while mass action is populist it is also destructive, while digitally-correct activists' more principled stand is elitist as a result.

It is against these interpretations of the internet and online democracy that Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and senior Wikipedians decided to stage a 24-hour blackout in protest against two pieces of legislation before the US Congress, the Stop Online Piracy Act (Sopa) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (Pipa).

While both bills have been attacked, it is Sopa that is the most deserving of criticism as it would grant the US government powers to shut down websites that provide information about circumventing internet censorship – effectively a pre-emptive strike. In this way Sopa would effectively destroy any sites with user-generated content (ie Facebook, Twitter, YouTube etc) while open source software would also cease to exist.

Both bills would allow service providers to indiscriminately close websites to avoid court orders from the US authorities, removing judicial oversight from the process. Another outcome of the bills would be the outlawing of internet users attempting to help people living in countries where internet censorship is high, such as China, from circumventing restrictions. Finally, the bills would grant the US attorney general powers to block domain services and de-list websites from search engines.

Wikipedia's blackout decision has been dismissed as "silly" by the CEO of Twitter and has been criticised as overblown given the White House's strong hint that it would veto any legislation that impedes freedom of expression. In fact, Wikipedia's stance, which has inspired copycat actions among other websites, reveals very sophisticated democratic politics.

For critics who say the website has effectively censored itself in anti-censorship protest, the blackout itself does not even really exist; it applies only to English language pages on the online encyclopedia and can be easily avoided via using a mobile device or disabling JavaScript.

More importantly, a statement accessible via the 'censored' version of the Wikipedia English-language homepage states that while Wikipedia's content would always strive to be neutral, its existence never would be; a clear acceptance of the causeway model where the technology of the internet itself does not embody future democratic polities but the relationship between the technology and its users does.

The crucial fact overlooked by the vast majority of coverage of the Wikipedia blackout is the call for internet users in and outside the US to contact their elected representatives to register their opposition to Sopa, Pipa and overzealous internet censorship; a clear example of online protests moving offline. The essence of Wikipedia's blackout lies somewhere between interpretations of mass and digitally-correct actions – more similar to a strike in the offline world than the occupy movement. There are strains of digitally-correct influences in the blackout as well, however, in allowing Wikipedia to still be accessed by those with access to smartphones or sufficient knowledge of JavaScript.

Wikipedia may have its roots in the objectivism of Ayn Rand, whose beliefs the site's founder Jimmy Wales espouses. Its future however belongs to its millions of editors and users, and its 'blackout' is a useful model for others wanting to replicate the politics of the online world in the offline one.

Matthew Champion is a freelance journalist living in London specialising in global affairs and development economics.

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.